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What Is an Adverbial Clause?

Jim B.
Updated May 17, 2024
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An adverbial clause is an English grammatical construction in which a subordinate clause in a sentence modifies the verb of a main clause. By doing this, the clause essentially plays the same role as an adverb does in a sentence. In most cases, these clauses are begin by a subordinate conjunction and often show either the time when or the reason why that the verb occurs. As with subordinate clauses, an adverbial clause includes a noun and a verb but cannot stand alone in a sentence like the main clause can.

Sentence structure in the English language is often distinguished by different groups of words that serve a purpose to the overall meaning of the sentence. A clause in a sentence contains a noun and a verb but it may or may not be able to stand alone. In some cases, these clauses, much like a single word, can have the function of a part of speech in the sentence. One of these functioning clauses is an adverbial clause, which behaves in the same manner as an adverb does in a sentence.

In many cases, an adverbial clause is used to modify the main verb in terms of explaining when the action takes place. For example, imagine the sentence, "After we took the kids to school, we went back at home and rested." With this sentence, "After we took the kids to school" acts as the adverb, since it explains when the subjects of the sentence went back home and rested.

Another common use for an adverbial clause is to show cause, or, in other words, to explain why the main verb in the sentence is taking place. For an example of this type, imagine the sentence, "Since I wasn't making enough money, I decided to quit my job." In this case, the adverbial clause at the beginning of the sentence explains why the subject decided to quit his job, creating a cause and effect in the sentence.

It is important to note in both examples, as in all adverbial clauses, that the subordinate clauses could not stand alone and still make sense as a sentence. This sets them apart from the main clauses. Both main clauses in the examples, "We went back home and rested" and "I decided to quit my job," could stand alone as sentences and make perfect sense. The adverbial clauses are thus the subordinate clauses, modifying the main clauses and providing a bit more information to complete the thoughts.

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Jim B.
By Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.
Discussion Comments
By MissDaphne — On Dec 20, 2011

@dfoster85 - I teach my students the same thing. I actually got it out of a book by Jeff Anderson called Mechanically Inclined - I wonder if your teacher had read the same book.

Another thing he teaches is a mnemonic for remembering words that often (but by no means always) begin adverb clauses. I think they're called subordinating adverbs. At any rate, the trick is AAAWWUUBBIS, pronounced like a train whistle! Each letter stands for a word.

I don't feel like I should give away all of them, but some examples of the AAAWWUUBBIS words are After, Although, While, Until, and If. These words can clue you in that an adverb clause *might* be starting.

But it's important to note that some of these words can also be prepositions ("Wait until lunch"), can start noun clauses ("I don't know if I can make it"), so you still have to look at what the group of words is and how it is used in the sentence.

By dfoster85 — On Dec 19, 2011

I had a teacher in middle school who always taught us that adverb clauses make good titles for short stories, novels, poems, songs, etc. because they make you wonder what's going to come after. What has happened "Since You've Been Gone"? Or "While You Were Sleeping"?

An adverb clause alone like that is sort of an answer without a question: it tells when or why or how, but not *what.* It leaves open the mystery.

Jim B.
Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
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